Posted by Danielle Berrin
The most famous man in Hollywood whom you’ve probably never heard of is 97-year-old Charles Aidikoff.
For nearly 50 years, Aidikoff has been operating a private screening room where filmmakers, Academy members and even studios can show their work to small, invitation-only audiences. There was the time, for example, when Denzel Washington wanted to see the final cut of one of his movies, alone, without distraction. Or the many occasions when directors, like Judd Apatow, want feedback from friends before handing a film over to a studio. But lately Aidikoff’s tiny theater has been filled with Academy voters scrambling to see all the nominated films before final voting begins on Feb. 8. With 57 luxe-leather seats, a red carpet, a curtain and the latest screening technology available, The Charles Aidikoff Screening Room beats the heck out of the living room couch.
On a late afternoon earlier this winter, a small group of Aidikoff’s friends were invited to a screening of the Oscar-nominated film Les Misérables. One perk of being a theater operator is the ability to screen current releases for friends, which Aidikoff does most Sundays, publishing his weekly selection on a private hotline. As is his routine, the moment Les Mis ended, Aidikoff leapt to the door to poll his guests as they made their way out.
“So whatdidya think?” he asked, looking playful and relaxed in a bulky Dodgers jacket and his signature black-rimmed eyeglasses. He spoke with the excited impatience of a boy outside a candy store.
“That was quite a production,” said Roger Small. “What’d you think?”
“The only complaint I have about the film is the songs and the music kept getting in the way of the story line!” Aidikoff exclaimed. Then he chuckled at the absurdity of his critique (the film, of course, is a musical).
A bonafide movie buff with an encyclopedic frame of reference, Aidikoff estimates that he’s screened-and-seen approximately 50,000 films. His favorite director, whom he’s met, is Orson Welles (“better than Spielberg!”); he prefers good old-fashioned drama to any other genre (tops are “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind”); and he is not particularly fond of movie critics (“Don’t listen to ’em!”). He is, however, a bit star-crazy, judging by the walls of his theater, which are covered head to toe with snapshots of himself with all the famous faces who have dropped by over the years -- from Welles to Harvey Weinstein, Anne Margaret to Paris Hilton, from Uma to Scarlett to Penn and Pacino, and seemingly everyone in between. It would hardly be a stretch to say that if you work in Hollywood and you’re not on Aidikoff’s wall, you should work harder. Or as his friend Small put it, “You’re not anybody in Hollywood until you’ve had your picture taken with Charlie Aidikoff!”
But ask the nonagenarian if he still goes gaga meeting movie stars, and he plays demure. “Oh no,” he said, cracking a smile. “They all come to see me.”
Aidikoff will turn 98 the weekend of the Academy Awards. But even more remarkable than his age or the company he keeps is his storybook life. He has lived the American dream the way most people only experience it at the movies.
A child of the Great Depression, Aidikoff grew up in a solidly middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family. His father was a projectionist at a Coney Island movie theater and taught him how to run the projectors in the booth by the time he was 9. His dad later got the boy his first job as an usher in that same theater, and before long, encouraged him to join the family business – the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) -- to broaden his prospects.
“My dad said to me, ‘Charles, look, you are working 50 hours a week. I’m working 28 hours a week and making 25 dollars more than you’re making. Don’t be a schmuck. Become a projectionist.’”
Since steady jobs were hard to come by, however, eventually that wasn’t even enough, so Aidikoff and his wife decided to move to California, where there would be more demand. After a short stint running projectors at local theaters – and, this being California, at the drive-in movie -- Aidikoff decided to open his own business. At the time, there were only a handful of private screening rooms in existence, so he paid a visit to one near Sunset and Doheny and asked the owner if he could buy it. He cobbled together the $45,000 asking price through a bank loan and some money from his mother-in-law, but when he returned with a check, the owner raised his price by ten grand.
“I told the guy, ‘I’m gonna put you out of business,” Aidikoff said.
Aidikoff went down the street to 9255 Sunset Boulevard where the American Broadcasting Company had offices, along with the reputable Ashley-Famous talent agency. He asked the building manager for a space, and the manager offered what no one else wanted: 850 square feet off the main lobby with no windows. “Great,” Aidikoff said, “I don’t need any windows.” There was another catch: an obligatory 10-year-lease for $550 per month. Aidikoff signed, set his rate at $12 per hour, and on Dec. 12, 1964, opened The Charles Aidikoff screening room.
Then, like out of a Hollywood movie, he got his big break: Elton Rule, the president of ABC, asked if he could rent Aidikoff’s screening room all day, every weekday, leaving Aidikoff nights and weekends and any other time ABC didn’t need it. Aidikoff repaid both his loans within two years and bought a house in Studio City.
For 26 years, the screening room on Sunset was the setting for legends: young Steven Spielberg screened his first short films there hoping to land a studio job; George Lucas screened “Star Wars” for the very first time there; in the 70s, the Beatles stopped by. In fact, Aidikoff was so successful that in 1991 he upgraded to a Rodeo Drive location (a strategy centered on proximity to the big talent agencies), doubling his capacity. Today Aidikoff charges between $300 and $900 per hour, depending on the time of day and technology required. Sometimes, the room is used without a screening at all, as when earlier this month sportscaster Bob Costas rented it to conduct a series of interviews with Hollywood celebrities.
For those who work in the movie business, though, Aidikoff is his own brand of celebrity. In 2008, he became a member of the Academy – an unusual and rare honor for a projectionist – and he has been invited several times to attend the Oscars ceremony. “If you have some money you want to throw away, I’ll be happy to take you,” he said with a wry smile. Even with the coveted invitation, to attend – in style -- can still be expensive: “You don’t go to the Academy Awards in a car, you take a limo,” he said. But he promises that he gets good seats (“Front row, Mezzanine, where you can see everybody”), and his pal and client Harvey Weinstein has been known to invite him to the afterparties.
Onscreen and off, Aidikoff has truly seen it all. From silent film to the digital age, he is an emblem of Hollywood history and a bastion of a bygone American age in which skilled labor was highly regarded, and contained the promise of entrepreneurship and enterprise. Are there still projectionists at Coney Island? There are hardly even any more projectors.
But Aidikoff doesn’t lament the past. And he doesn’t give a hoot about Hollywood’s obsession with youth. He’s worked hard for nearly nine decades and isn’t looking for do-overs. So how has he stayed so vital?
“You wanna know my real secret?” he asked. “When people ask I tell ’em: ‘Fast horses and slow women.’ If it would have been the other way around, I would’ve been dead 50 years ago.”
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February 6, 2013 | 12:53 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
On a rainy Saturday night in January, a small group of leaders from the worlds of entertainment, media and philanthropy gathered at the home of billionaire businessman Ron Burkle to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.”
For 97 minutes, the room was still. There was no coughing, no bathroom break, no popcorn. Once or twice, the unruly reflex of nervous laughter was heard, if only to relieve the tension of the movie’s subject. Mostly though, the 20 or so guests sat transfixed and uneasy as on screen U.S. military veterans — most of them women — told of their experiences of rape, sexual assault and physical abuse while serving their country. And if that was not disturbing enough, the audience learned, their woes did not end with those crimes against their bodies, but were compounded when they sought justice against the perpetrators.
After the screening, California Sen. Barbara Boxer somberly walked to the front of the room. She wore a citrusy orange V-neck sweater and a thick strand of pearls. “Well,” she said, “you have seen a truth. It’s horrible. This is something we’d never want to know, because it’s so ugly.” Boxer, who serves as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and whose daughter Nicole is an executive producer of the film, appeared both outraged and embarrassed. The film presents a serious indictment — that rape and sexual assault are rampant in the U.S. military and, worse, that perpetrators benefit from systemic impunity while victims suffer unthinkably from institutional denial. “It’s a terrible secret the country needs to look at,” Boxer said, “and it’s as disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen.”
Since seeing the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Boxer has become one of its staunchest champions. Last November, she led the Senate to pass an amendment banning anyone convicted of a sexual assault felony from joining the armed forces. Its passage codified into law a policy initiated by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009. Boxer explained to the group that enforcement of the policy had been lax in recent years as the demands of two wars forced the military to waive some of its requirements. “They were taking in requests from people who were kidnappers, arsonists,” Boxer said. “After this film, it was a no-brainer. No one dared stand up and say, ‘I’m not supporting this [bill].’ ”
U.S. Marine Corps First Lt. Ariana Klay in dress blues in “The Invisible War.” Photo courtesy of Cinedigm/Docurama Films
“That’s a rare thing,” she added, “for a film to have so much power.”
“The Invisible War,” conceived and created by film partners Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick has provoked a ripple effect throughout Washington. After watching the film in April 2012, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly moved to strengthen oversight regarding military policy on sexual assault. Last month, U.S. Air Force leaders were called before the House Armed Services Committee to testify on the conditions that led to widespread sexual assault of Air Force recruits by their instructors. A story in The New York Times credited the “The Invisible War” for putting this issue on the political map and reported that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III had gathered all of the Air Force’s wing commanders to watch the film in November.
Fans keep telling the filmmakers that they’ve created a tsunami. “A lot of people are upset that this film was made,” Boxer said at the screening. In the past, the issue had reared its head only when a scandal erupted, like the one at the Tailhook Association meetings in 1991 or at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, then retreated from the headlines. But now, with a highly visible Oscar nomination for best documentary, the cause of “The Invisible War” is becoming harder to ignore, and the public is demanding military and political officials be held accountable. Last week, Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel faced questions on the issue from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who both grilled him on his position during confirmation hearings. “This issue bedevils the military,” Blumenthal said before asking Hagel if he had seen “The Invisible War.” Hearing that Hagel had, Blumenthal pressed for a promise to prosecute perpetrators of sexual assault as well as provide care for victims. “Absolutely, I’ll commit to that,” Hagel responded.
For producer Ziering, this was a major victory. “Did you hear?” she exclaimed during a break from a screening of the film at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. “Oh. My. God. And then, Lawrence O’Donnell” — anchor of MSNBC’s “The Last Word” — “for the first 15 minutes of his show tonight — my phone has been exploding, went crazy. He said the only issue that Hagel should be concerned with is rape in the military. And he showed clips from our movie, and he’s tweeting now. They said he’s blowing up Twitter, like ‘Hagel, what are you going to do about rape in the military?’ ”
For Ziering, this project is more than a movie; it is a cause that has become a kind of second skin. Her interest was sparked in 2007, when she read Helen Benedict’s article in Salon, “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” based on interviews with 20 female Iraq veterans. “[E]very one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection,” Benedict wrote. When Ziering reached out to Benedict after reading her story, Benedict said she had simply intended to write a book about women in combat, but during the course of her research, stories of sexual assault kept pouring out. (A week later, the same topic appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine.) Ziering, who had just completed the HBO documentary “Outrage,” about closeted politicians who legislate against gay causes, decided to pursue Benedict’s lead.
She began by posting flyers at L.A. Veterans Affairs (VA) buildings seeking victims of military sexual assault. She also spoke with advocates, therapists and trolled through military chat rooms. She promised whoever came forward, that initial conversations would be kept off the record and offered options on how to share their stories — letters, e-mails, by phone or in person. Ziering also created a Facebook page providing background information about herself; partner Dick, who directed the film; and their film company. She received hundreds of responses.
The film’s director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering at the 65th annual Directors Guild of America Awards on Feb. 2. Photo by Michael Germana Star Max/Newscom
Over four months, Ziering interviewed more than 100 veterans by phone. From those, she whittled down her subjects to 21 people who fit a master criteria: the experiences had to be recent, the victims had to be geographically accessible, and they had to represent the diverse branches of the military. Perhaps most important, the stories had to be “unassailable,” Ziering said.
“In many of these [sexual-assault] cases, a lot of the evidence has been destroyed or there are no records kept. We didn’t want any vulnerabilities or holes that could get [the film] attacked and discredited,” Ziering said. The film also couldn’t seem “anti-military.” Since a project of this scale on this topic was unprecedented, diplomacy mattered. “There’s no book on this,” Ziering said. “We are the story.”
“The Invisible War” opens with archival black-and-white footage depicting the glamour of the U.S. military and its decision to admit women into the service. In the ensuing montage, female veterans describe the reasons for their desire to serve — a passion for service, a sense of duty, family military history or a desire to see the world. “I could just always see the movies of the military, and I just knew: That was me. That’s what I wanted to do,” Kori Cioca, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, says. While serving, Cioca was raped several times by her superior. On one occasion he struck her across the face, severely damaging her jaw. The blow caused disc and nerve damage so severe that she has since been forced to eat a “soft diet.” Five years after the incident, the film relates, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny her medical coverage for jaw surgery.
Cioca’s story serves as the central thread of the documentary, though it also includes interviews with other veterans, lawyers, therapists, experts and political officials. As the filmmakers delve into Cioca’s private life, showing her at home with her husband, Rob McDonald (also a Coast Guard veteran, who resigned after his wife’s ordeal), and their young daughter, it becomes clear that her rape trauma affects the entire family — from the pained and fraught sex life that has darkened their marriage to their young daughter’s daily exposure to her mother’s physical limitations and emotional preoccupations. At one point, McDonald tells the camera that his most ardent hope for his daughter is that she never serve in the military. In this way, the film suggests rape is not just a women’s issue, but rather a societal one, affecting families and communities across generations.
According to Department of Defense (DOD) statistics, 3,192 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2011, but studies indicate the actual number is likely much higher — close to 19,000 per year — since 80 percent of sexual-assault cases are never reported. This means that as many as a half-million sexual assaults have occurred in the U.S. military since the early 1990s. And even when cases are reported, the film suggests, they often become tied up in bureaucratic never-land, and a pervasive culture of victim-blaming leaves many victims who come forward subject to professional retaliation.
Ariana Klay, a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq War veteran, reported being gang raped while serving at Marine Barracks Washington, the elite Marine Corps unit that handles ceremonial duties for the president. Afterward, she claims, she was told that she had invited the harassment by wearing the regulation-length skirt that serves as her uniform. She was also accused of misconduct. “The thing that makes me the most angry is not the rape itself,” she tells the camera, “but the complicity in covering it up.”
The trauma of military sexual assault, according to experts in the film, is unusually damaging because of the armed forces’ familial culture, which makes the betrayal harder to bear. One therapist interviewed equates it with incest.
“What is boot camp?” Ziering asked. “It’s all about stripping you down psychologically, making you believe that these are your brothers, and then suddenly someone’s assaulting you? And they say ‘suck it up’ or ‘it’s your fault’ or ‘it didn’t happen.’ It’s just completely profoundly damaging in a way you and I can’t comprehend.
“Most of the women in our film were discharged for personality disorders,” she added. “There’s nothing wrong with them! And then their perpetrator gets accolades and honors and has a healthy career? I mean, what do you do with that?”
When I met Ziering a few weeks ago at a Brentwood cafe near her home, she was seated in a courtyard with her laptop, negotiating a potential CNN buyout of “The Invisible War” from PBS (the latter was an early contributor to the film’s $850,000 budget, which came with broadcast rights; the CNN deal subsequently collapsed). Ziering looked relaxed, casually dressed in khakis and a cotton tee with a cashmere sweater tied around her neck, her chestnut hair blown perfectly straight. Her soft, almost delicate appearance is a fitting counterpoint to her feistiness, and though she possesses the air of elegance that comes with having had a posh upbringing, it’s a topic she’d rather avoid.
“I can’t talk about our family,” she said bluntly. “Whatever you want to say about us is fine. I feel stupid … I mean, just Google my mom.”
Ziering was raised in Beverly Hills, the daughter of philanthropists Marilyn and Sigi Ziering, major supporters of American Jewish University, Temple Beth Am, American Friends of the Israeli Philharmonic and LA Opera. Sigi, now deceased, was a Holocaust survivor who went on to found a multinational medical diagnostic corporation. But it was his Holocaust legacy that steered her course. “I was incredibly interested in trauma, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and it’s actually sort of an unconscious thread in most of my films. There’s always a psychological dimension that deals with the nature of trauma.”
Working in the entertainment industry was never her goal. She said she had “zero interest in films. Never watched them. I walked out of ‘Star Wars’ when I was 12.” She fell into documentary filmmaking as a graduate student at Yale when she decided to make a film about her professor, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. A rabid student of philosophy — she studied “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Foucault” — a film on Derrida offered an opportunity to get close to the living legend. “It was really raising the bar in a bizarre way, like, how could I get even more crazy access and push myself?” she said. “And of course he said no, and of course I pursued him for like two years.”
Ziering is marked by a spellbinding duality, a combination of deep sensitivity and outrageous chutzpah that she happily exploits to her advantage. During production of “The Invisible War,” she was compassionate and tender enough to elicit personal and painful stories from strangers; but outside that context, she displays an almost ruthless drive to get what she wants. Dick, with whom she collaborated on “Derrida,” “Outrage” and “The Invisible War,” described her this way: “When Amy decides that she wants to go after something, she will not take no for an answer. … And she has this skill at asking in a way that she expects the person to say yes.”
Dick credits Ziering’s protective, maternal nature for her skill in conducting the interviews for “The Invisible War.” “They are really the soul of the film,” he said. Which is a tad ironic, since Ziering described her own mothering style as a little detached. Though her family life is full — she is married to filmmaker Gil Kofman, with whom she has three daughters, ages 14, 15 and 20, and described the family as “totally close” — she admitted that her kids don’t always come first. “I ignore them,” she said, only half-joking. “It’s amazing how resourceful [children] become when you pay no attention to them. My daughter’s soccer coach asked if she had parents, because I’ve never been to a game. I’m not gonna kid: something gives.”
Ziering finds justification for her compromise in the idea that her work is altruistic in purpose. “I don’t care about myself,” she said. “I’m not much of a glamour-seeking or publicity-seeking person. I’m a workaholic; that’s all that interests me.”
Ziering has applied her merciless resolve to getting “The Invisible War” seen in Washington. “We not only wanted to make a very powerful film for film audiences, we wanted to make a film that several hundred of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C., would see and hopefully be compelled to do something,” Dick said. “That’s when Amy undertook this very skillful, brilliantly strategized and calculated campaign to get this film in front of influencers and policy makers.”
She started with Wikipedia, looking up the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leaders of all five branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — and then sent an e-mail to her girlfriends asking if they knew “any of these guys’ wives, daughters, sisters.” “And if so, I need to talk to them,” she recalled writing. Within a week, one friend wrote that she was having lunch with the wife of a top general and would mention the film. A few weeks later, Ziering flew to D.C. to hold a private screening for the general and his wife (Ziering wouldn’t give their names). Afterward, the couple offered their help. “I need you to call Martin Dempsey” — the decorated general and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ziering told them. “I need him to watch this film.”
“The Invisible War” had just enjoyed a splashy premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and won the U.S. documentary audience award. (At Sundance, New York Jewish philanthropists Barbara and Eric Dobkin were so moved by the film they offered to pay for Kori Cioca’s jaw surgery.) Eager to capitalize on the press that followed, Ziering organized a screening on Capitol Hill that was attended by 16 senators and eight representatives.
“I did my homework,” Ziering told me. “Everybody said, you can grass-roots this thing till the cows come home, but the military is a top-down organization — the Joint Chiefs of our military need to see this; Obama needs to see it; Leon Panetta needs to see it — and until that happens, nothing is going to change.”
Several months later, Ziering got a text message from Jennifer Siebel Newsom, one of the film’s executive producers and the wife of Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who is now California’s lieutenant governor. Newsom had been in Washington attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Congratulations Amy,” Newsom wrote. “You got it to Panetta.”
Ziering’s endgame is and always has been policy change. After Panetta watched “The Invisible War,” he amended military protocol for reporting sexual assault by taking authority out of the hands of unit commanders — who, Defense Department statistics show, deter reporting because of their proximity to perpetrators or because they happen to be the perpetrator — and placed discretion instead in the hands of colonels or Navy captains. It was a promising start, but hardly a panacea: “Our ask is to take adjudication of these crimes outside the chain of command,” Ziering said, adding that Great Britain, Australia and Canada all have independent bodies to investigate and prosecute military sexual assault. When I requested an interview with the Department of Defense, the response was a statement from Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which did not address policy but called the film “gut-wrenching” and stated his commitment to “eliminating” sexual assault from the U.S. military.
“There has to be a system of checks and balances. Absolute authority corrupts,” Ziering said.
After becoming close with the subjects in her film, Ziering said she felt compelled to try to help them obtain treatment. Years after the assaults, Ziering said, almost every single person she interviewed still suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “Survivors would describe the day the trauma happened as the day their life stopped. And from my knowledge of survivors of the Holocaust, not all, but a lot of them were able to compartmentalize and lead healthy productive lives. I didn’t see one person I talked to who had at all recovered in a way where they were high functioning or happy. It was this radical transformation that seemed irrecuperable.”
Another of the film’s producers, public relations executive Regina Kulik Scully, stepped forward with a half-million dollars (in addition to her contribution to the production) to pilot The Artemis Rising Invisible War Recovery Program, a two-week residential treatment program at The Bridge to Recovery in Santa Barbara. The pilot program began Feb. 3 with five of the women from the film. In addition to offering intensive individual and group therapy along with equine therapy, yoga and dance, a researcher from Stanford has attended the retreat to gather data for a scientific study, hoping to quantify the program’s results. If effective, Ziering and Scully suggest it could become a prototype for the VA, a model for future treatment. “Right now, the one-stop shop is pharmaceuticals,” Ziering said.
Despite this cause’s harsh realities and the uphill battle that remains, Ziering said she finds the work rewarding. “My dad, obviously, was first degree on profound despair, but he turned that pain into this incredible optimism and passion for helping others — and the older I get, the more I marvel at that,” she said, as tears welled in her eyes. “That, that was his takeaway.”
Ziering regained her characteristic toughness when talk turned to the Oscars. After all, “The Invisible War,” is competing at the Oscars against two Israeli films — “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.” So, she allowed herself to call in a favor from her well-connected mother. “I did finally say to my mom, ‘You’ve been supporting Israel all your life. You’re not. That’s over.’ ”
Eager to oblige, Marilyn Ziering called a few of her rabbi pals, as well as leaders from other Jewish organizations to spread the good word about her daughter’s film.
“The fact that ‘The Invisible War’ has the misfortune of being up against two Israeli movies is just something we have to get over,” a very resolute Marilyn Ziering told me by phone. For her daughter, winning an Oscar is a means to a much bigger end, although its prestige could help her get there. In a flash of sarcasm, Amy Ziering described her mother’s task as “Operation Annihilate Shin Bet” — a joking reference to Israel’s internal security agency, the subject of “The Gatekeepers” — but she then quickly recanted for fear of Academy reprisal. Ziering said she felt bad about dissing the competition. But not too bad.
“I have a bigger mission, so screw it,” she said, throwing her head back in laughter. “I’m not much of a rules girl.”
“The Invisible War” will have a brief theatrical re-release this weekend in select cities -- it will screen in Los Angeles Thurs. Feb. 7 at 7pm at the Museum of Tolerance -- and will premier on PBS on Memorial Day, May 27. The film is currently available on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.
"The Invisible War" can be seen Feb. 8-13 at the ArcLight Hollywood and ArcLight Pacific
January 31, 2013 | 10:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In L.A.’s mayoral race there are two communities to which the candidates are eager to prove their closeness and connection: the Jewish community and Hollywood.
At their second synagogue debate earlier this week at Sinai Temple (the first took place at Beth Jacob on Jan. 3) the bulk of the five mayoral candidates were quick to address their Jewish connection in their opening remarks (watch the full debate here). The cozying up became so obvious, in fact, that when a colleague of mine conducted an interview at the end of the debate the first thing the woman complained about was how much certain candidates “played the Jewish card.”
Yesterday, an email from Eric Garcetti’s campaign boasted that more than 200 entertainment leaders have endorsed the City Councilman, including former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Showtime president David Nevins and Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Other notable names include Jon Feltheimer, CEO of Lions Gate Entertainment, Kevin Huvane, partner at CAA, entertainment entrepreneur Michael Ovitz and sibling showrunners David Kohan (“Will and Grace”) and Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”).
Hollywood seems to be split between the two frontrunners -- Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, who likes to tout her industry cred as a former employee of the “iconic” Dreamworks SKG, the movie studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Greuel worked in corporate affairs for Dreamworks from 1997 to 2002 and easily won endorsements from her former bosses last summer, as well as from J.J. Abrams, Leonard Nimoy and Candy Spelling. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney Studios chief Alan Horn and WME superagent Ari Emanuel also gave early endorsements to Greuel.
The subject of Hollywood figured squarely into the debate Tuesday night when Rabbi David Wolpe, the evening’s moderator, asked the candidates what message they had for the entertainment industry.
Bill Boyarsky writes in L.A. Observed:
Wolpe said, “Let’s say you had in front of you the top 500 Hollywood executives. What is it you want to say to them about the movies they make, the city they live in and about the image they give our city and our country to the world? And is it the mayor’s job to monitor, lecture, to uplift, to help shape Los Angeles’ most important industry?”
City Councilman Eric Garcetti offered his usual pitch about giving the industry more tax breaks and other incentives to film in Los Angeles. Similar economic solutions were offered by Controller Wendy Greuel, attorney and former radio talk show host Kevin James and Obama administration transition official Emanuel Pleitez.
Councilwoman Perry seemed to understand that the rabbi had something deeper in mind. She said she had supported legislation to make it easier to make feature film in California, but she quickly moved on: “If we had a room full of executives…from the film industry, I would say this: I would encourage your creativity. I would encourage you to put people in Los Angeles back to work. We have unchecked potential here and I would encourage you to create more apprenticeships, more internships, more opportunities to reach out to young people who may not have the connections or the wherewithal to have a career in the industry and to pull them along with you.
“I’d also say this: ‘Let’s go to the schools, let’s talk to families about the portrayal of violence in movies and how it does desensitize younger people who spend too much time playing violent games on line and then go see it in the movies and remember how it does affect the growth of the next generation.”
Boyarsky added that he found it “gutty” for Perry to speak so candidly to an industry that “brooks no criticism.” And although she won big on Tuesday night among her mayoral colleagues -- each of the four other candidates said that if they weren’t running, they’d vote Perry -- she has not managed to secure as many allies in the entertainment industry as Garcetti and Greuel. Perhaps that’s why she has chosen to play up her conversion to Judaism instead.
January 30, 2013 | 5:23 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Anyone just tuning in to the sensation created by Aaron Swartz’s death might easily think he’s the Internet’s Joan of Arc.
Last month, the 26-year-old prodigy programmer, activist and blogger hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was a “wizardly” figure, according to The New York Times, a Stanford dropout and a Harvard University fellow, lauded foremost for his creation of the RSS feed, a Web syndication program that allows Internet users to subscribe to information.
Swartz’s passion and purpose was that everyone should have access to information and ideas — without having to pay for them. To that end, he once hid out in an M.I.T. utility closet, broke into the school’s computer network and downloaded millions of files from JSTOR, a nonprofit organization that sells subscriptions to scientific and literary journals. His act was born of principle, but nevertheless illegal: He was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, which carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
But Swartz’s stunt also provoked a big question that continues to resonate: Is knowledge a right or a privilege?
Story continues after the jump.
Since his suicide on Jan. 11, the Internet has erupted with outrage. Scores of passionate eulogies have portrayed Swartz as a gallant hero, some of which is justified: The world has lost “a prodigal mind,” “a brilliant programmer” and “a passionate advocate for social justice.” But much of it also seems misguided: “Why Did the Justice System Target Aaron Swartz?” read a headline in Rolling Stone. According to that article, Swartz’s friends and family believe he was “driven to his death” by an unfair lawsuit and an uncompromising prosecutor.
“How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz — And Us,” echoed The New Yorker, whose writer Tim Wu went so far as to implicate the whole of American society in Swartz’s death: “We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses — and by that measure, we have utterly failed,” he wrote.
What we have failed at, rather, is distinguishing between deviance and sedition. Like Julian Assange, Swartz was a steward of the free-information movement, a group of technology activists with anarchist ideas and methods who sought to make Web content freely available — copyrights be damned. Swartz even founded the online advocacy group Demand Progress, which led the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a Hollywood-backed bill that would have restricted access to copyrighted content. This endeared him to the digital generation but made him a bane of Hollywood.
“I don’t understand it at all,” one industry heavyweight told me. “When has a suicide ever been attributed to anything other than a mental or emotional instability? The government prosecutes people all the time who don’t kill themselves — the Hollywood 10, to name one example. Or 10 examples.”
Unlike James Dean, Swartz was a rebel with a cause. He was no idling, addlepated teenager suffering from listlessness and moral confusion; he was a deeply engaged dissident with apparently few qualms about breaking the law. A victim of his own ideology, he is more mascot than martyr. A sweet-faced youth icon for a shadowy movement.
The looming criminal case may have cast a dark shadow over a delicate soul that suffered from serious depression. But was the government being too callous in mounting a case against him? Or are Swartz’s followers, aggrieved and naïve, unwilling to acknowledge that political dissent has its price?
Information activists should read up. Literature is filled with myths and tales about the dangers of pursuing knowledge. It melted Icarus’ wings. It drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It is no accident that the very first story in the Bible teaches that the human pursuit of knowledge is answered with punishment.
“For in much wisdom is much grief,” Ecclesiastes tells us. “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
What Swartz knew, and which, perhaps, his supporters do not, is that knowledge is painful and consequential. The biblical Tree of Knowledge is referred to as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is no neutral knowledge; it always leads somewhere. Ignorance is the only true bliss.
In Swartz’s legacy is a tragic but powerful lesson. He loved knowledge; he sought knowledge; he suffered from knowledge. It is an unfortunate truth that the more you know, the more truth you seek, the more the world becomes strange in its lack. Swartz sought to fill that void with more and more information, more access. The government, with its mandate to protect, manages the unknown with laws of control.
Law and philosophy came into conflict within Swartz’s soul, and he suffered terribly. “Everything gets colored by the sadness,” he wrote in a blog post about his battle with depression. “At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But...[y]ou feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.”
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once taught that when faced with the choice between the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve chose wisdom over immortality.
In his way, Swartz made the same choice. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.
January 25, 2013 | 10:36 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Ron Fair is a three-decade veteran of the music industry and widely considered one of the its leading record producers. He was recently named Chief Creative Officer of Virgin Records and prior to that served as the chairman of Geffen Records and president of A&M Records. As a producer, arranger, engineer and songwriter, Fair has worked with artists such as Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, The Black Eyed Peas and The Pussycat Dolls. He recently became a celebrity in Israel as the star judge of the reality series, “Living in LA LA Land” (“Chai B’LaLa Land”). A week before returning to Israel to shoot the show’s second season, Fair talked about his return to a major record label, the qualities he looks for in a potential star and his illustrious family history in the Yiddish Theatre.
You’ve been in the music business for more than 30 years, along the way heading some of the biggest labels in the industry. What happened after your contract at Geffen expired and what was the appeal of joining another major label?
Basically for the last year and a half I’ve been working as an independent producer, which was the first time in many years I had worked that way. I got to a very peaceful place inside myself about what it is I do in my career and basically what I do is I make the jewelry. I start with the raw gems and put them together as a piece of jewelry -- but I don’t necessarily run the jewelry shop. Then I met Steve Barnett and he gave me this chance to come back and reinvigorate a label that had been kicked around for many years.
You’ve seen the industry undergo radical changes as technology has transformed the way the business operates. Now that music is freely accessible on the Web and artists are marketing themselves through social media, how does the record label stay relevant and profitable?
I feel like technology and music have had a steamy, tempestuous love affair since Thomas Edison. Music and technology go hand in hand. This gigantic cultural tsunami of electronic dance music is all based on technology, where computers take over creative impulses that used to come from humans. [Technology] levels the playing field like never before: everybody is exposed to the same tools and can bypass the gatekeeping process of curation that record companies do. This is the greatest time ever to consume entertainment, and it is such a great time for mankind because of technology so I don’t fear it.
But isn’t a double-edged sword? Because while technology has created all this opportunity on the Internet, the unfettered access to art and information has created profitability problems for content creators.
If I write a song or write a Shakespearean sonnet, that authorship is mine. That is something that does not belong to everyone equally simply because it appears on a mass medium like the Internet.
People think of you as a discoverer of talent. What are the ingredients that make someone a star?
Being a star myself wasn’t something that ever really created any desire or passion in me, it was always about the construction of it, the architecture of it -- making a song, making a record. To be a star you have to be narcissistic. You have to want to be above other people, but it’s okay, because if you want to be a star that comes with the turf, so it’s sanctioned narcissism. I combine that with musical skill, god given talent, the person’s personality, their sex appeal, their friendliness, their edge, their own interminable desire to succeed and be on top. So you mix all that up, take a look at it, and then you make a leap of faith. You say, ‘I’m going to make my life that person’s life.’
You’ve spent the past few years taping the reality show “Living in LA LA Land” in Israel and have compared your role on the show with that of Simon Cowell, formerly of “American Idol.” What is that meanness really about?
I use ‘mean’ as a fun word like when you watch cartoons and you have a villain. All television shows need a villain. And on this one I’m a bit of an authority figure because they say, ‘Well here’s this successful guy from L.A. who’s going to pass judgment.’ The main thing is to have a stone face and show no emotion and perpetuate the suspense of what might happen -- when really underneath it all is that I’m a very simpatico musical partner. Once the music work begins, the drama of the decision instantly disappears.
Before your involvement on this show, you hadn’t had much of a relationship with Israel. How has your feeling for it evolved since getting involved in their entertainment industry?
It was really an indescribable thing. On the first night there my wife got appendicitis and had to be rushed to Ichilov hospital, and all the sudden these people were all around us taking great care of us and it was an extraordinary thing. It was like everybody knew everybody. I never had much affinity for Israel; I wasn’t Zionistic, I hated Camp Alonim. I didn’t understand the concept of a Kibbutz. I was a typical American Jew -- I had no clue. But what I saw and what I felt was incredible, like, ‘Wow, everyone’s Jewish.’ It was a fantastic feeling.
I understand you’re pretty famous in Israel.
On the night of the finale of Season One, there was a party in a big club and there was this long runway with ropes, probably 3,000 people showed up and I’m walking down this runway and they were all screaming my name. My sister happened to be in Israel at same time and it’s kind of like, if she wasn’t there to witness it, nobody would have believed it.
Are people in the music world in Los Angeles curious about your Israel experience?
The people that are sort of the Israelophiles are conscious of it. We all have like a little secret handshake and it’s kind of a wonderful bond.
You also come from an illustrious Yiddish theater line.
My grandfather [Zalmen Zylbercweig] and grandmother [Celia Silber] were actors in the Yiddish theater in New York with Maurice Schwartz, you know, that whole unit that spawned a lot of major Hollywood stars--Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Leo Fuchs, Lee J. Cobb. It was basically an incubator for a lot of Hollywood talent. My grandfather was also a journalist, historian and raconteur of the Yiddish theater. After he came to L.A. he established a radio program called The Yiddish Hour on KALI, broadcast from this studio they built in the backyard through special FCC underground lines. They broadcast from their home studio five days a week for 25 years. They also staged plays at the Wilshire Ebell. His major life’s work, though, is The Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre [Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater], an encyclopedia of entries of every single person, play, scenic designer etc of any kind from the beginning of Yiddish Theater through the Holocaust. Each volume is thousands of pages. The only problem is that there is no indexing so the Museum of Family History is starting to transcribe the Lexicon.
Sounds like the Talmud.
It is kinda like that.
What has it meant to you to have that legacy in your lineage?
When I went to Jerusalem, I saw my grandfather’s archive in this museum at Hebrew University -- his life’s work, his collections, tapes, everything he had done in his life. It was all sent to the theater arts department at Hebrew University, including a marble bust of him. And here I am thousands of miles away from everybody and there’s my grandfather’s head. Knowing that he’s there, alive to people, is very powerful for me. It’s like a piece of me, a very big, very important piece of me is in Jerusalem. Plus when I recollect living with my grandfather -- this was a man who woke up at the crack of dawn and all he ever did was work, work, work -- I look at myself and understand how much of him is in me. He was not an Orthodox guy but when it came to the holidays he was by the book. Passover was like hours. Of torture. I’m not terribly religious, but [Jewish identity] is really really really important to me. And I rarely talk about it and I don’t sell it. Even from the standpoint of being melodramatic, which I am, is because of being Jewish. But we were people from the Yiddish theater so I have an excuse.
What do you love most about music?
There are certain things that, like, really really really feel good in life. Sex feels really good. Getting high, I mean, back in the day; getting inebriated feels good. Music is like that for me. It’s like sex. I never get tired of it. I always want it. I lose myself in it. There’s always something new in it. It is the bubble bath of the universe for me.
January 21, 2013 | 2:43 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the past I've wondered on this blog if writers can ever be trusted, since many of them depend on life experience to limn their prose. As Philip Roth said in a recent interview with the New York Times: "I needed my life as a springboard for my fiction. I have to have something solid under my feet when I write. I’m not a fantasist. I bounce up and down on the diving board and I go into the water of fiction. But I’ve got to begin in life so I can pump life into it throughout.”
A few days ago a friend sent me a link to this dazzling little gem from F. Scott Fitzgerald (courtesy of The Atlantic) which contains advice Fitzgerald gave to a family friend on how to be a writer. As any writer will tell you, writing can be very hard. And particularly pressing are questions of where imagination meets experience and fiction meets reality, and if, and how, to blend the two.
I admit I'm rather partial to Fitzgerald's advice:
You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child's passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway's first stories 'In Our Time' went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In 'This Side of Paradise' I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
January 20, 2013 | 8:37 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I haven't yet written anything substantive on "Girls" because part of me is still processing the show -- which I like and admire -- and the other part of me is convinced no one will write anything better than Elaine Blair already has. But I came across this quote that was written about men, and all I could think was: It's so Hannah!
Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates failures. It makes others feel as you might. When a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic. - Anais Nin, February 1947
Anxiety is love's greatest killer. Sing on, sister..
January 17, 2013 | 3:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the opening moments of the Warner Bros. movie “Gangster Squad,” the audience is introduced to the noirishly lit, bulging muscles of Mickey Cohen (finely sculpted by their real owner, Sean Penn), as Cohen is described in voiceover as a boxer from Brooklyn and “a Jew.”
It is the most humane glimpse of Cohen the movie offers. Penn took poetic license with the gangster’s myth and chose to personify him as evil incarnate and not the strange, charismatic, enterprising, image-obsessed, lawless germophobe he actually was. So, while critics have had some fun comparing Penn’s Cohen to a Batman or Bond villain, in real life, Cohen was less fearsome, more pitiable. Nevertheless, he remains an integral part of a Los Angeles’ mob legacy, which includes more than its fair share of racketeering Jews. Having had a hand in almost every major modernizing industry, one could say the Jewish mob made Los Angeles.
Cohen would be thrilled to see a Hollywood movie that hinges on his legacy — that is, this puffed-up, glitzy one that bares a scant resemblance to reality. Harvard-educated former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman wrote the seven-part investigative series for the newspaper that formed the basis for his nonfiction book “Gangster Squad,” upon which the film is based. According to Lieberman, Cohen wasn’t as mythic as he’d have you believe. Although the book “Gangster Squad” has the dark debauchery and dangerous glamour of a James Ellroy novel, it is based on facts drawn from 16 years of painstaking research, which Lieberman undertook after receiving a call from Sgt. John O’Mara, the squad’s leader, in 1992.
“What interested me as I got into it is that, in a way, the noir era still defines Los Angeles,” Lieberman said during a phone interview last week. He was especially enthralled by Mickey Cohen’s reign — his rise to L.A. kingpin and his fall to cartoonish joke.
“In 1949, there was a new scandal almost every week,” Lieberman said. “Or a shooting. Mickey was a giant in the headlines. It may sound absurd, but you’d hear stuff like, ‘This is an alien invasion’ — and that was the police chief talking that language – or ‘Los Angeles is a maiden in distress, and you’ve got to save her!’ ”
The dramatic headlines were fitting for a man obsessed with his own image and obsessed with Hollywood. Cohen would often boast he knew “half the movie business” on a first-name basis — the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Cary Grant. His notoriety helped cement his status as the king of vice, but his legend is merely one strain in Los Angeles’ sordid mobster past.
In his 2006 book “Supermob,” Gus Russo writes that “two types of power dominated the twentieth century: the visible, embodied in politicians, corporate moguls, crime bosses, and law enforcement; and the invisible, concentrated in the hands of a few power brokers generally of Eastern European and Jewish immigrant heritage.”
Los Angeles had both. There were the “hoods” (tough guys) and the “Supermob” (above-the-line lawyers, bankers and real estate investors), which the investigative reporter Brian Ross once delicately referred to as the “bridge between polite society and criminal society.” What they all had in common, according to Russo, was a “shared sense of entitlement regarding tax-free income.”
He dubbed them the “Kosher Nostra.”
The Jewish Supermob included names like Korshak, Arvey, Greenberg, Pritzker, Annenberg and Ziffren — some of which still command attention today. Although real estate became the ultimate (and legitimate) means through which they cemented their wealth and power, the Supermob’s connection to the movie business was another outlet for its influence. In fact, the lure of Hollywood money is what caught the attention of the granddaddy Chicago mobsters who were looking for ways to boost their own bottom line.
“For numerous reasons, Southern California was the ideal place for transplantation of the mob-Supermob alliance,” Russo writes of the historic power shift from Chicago to Los Angeles. L.A., he continues, “was known as a city receptive to both hoodlums and Jews.”
Russo also points out that when L.A. was incorporated as a city in April 1850, there were only eight Jews in a population of nearly 9,000 (although two of those Jews served on the city council). After the second world war, Russo explains, “Jewish newcomers were so predominant that by 1950 only 8 percent of adult Jews in L.A. had been born here.”
The best and worst of them came together at the Hillcrest Country Club, founded in 1920 on Pico Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars (right across from today’s Fox lot). Back then, Hillcrest was a playpen for the early Hollywood moguls — including Louis Mayer, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers, to name a few — a kind of secular synagogue where the movie moguls could rub shoulders with the Supermob. Many became “friends”; everybody got rich.
By the mid 1940s, perhaps no individual more aptly embodied both hoodlum and Jew than Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, the inveterate antagonist in “Gangster Squad” (although Cohen was not a member of Hillcrest, his mentor, Bugsy Siegel was, though he lost that privilege after being indicted and incarcerated in the fall of 1940). Penn’s portrayal of Cohen as a ruthless, heartless brute is, at least, indicative of his power. At one point, Cohen was so influential that state and city law enforcement buckled under his authority. “Either they would go along with the program,” Cohen once wrote of California’s midcentury police commissioners, “or they would be pushed out of sight.” Russo also recounts that when Richard Nixon first decided to run for Congress, he demanded Cohen raise $75,000 for his campaign, “to assure Nixon’s leniency toward the local bookies.”
Cohen came a long way from the Brooklyn-born teenage boxer who wore a Star of David on his trunks. Life hardened him, and he morphed into a sober, somewhat paranoid germ freak who washed his hands at least 100 times a day. Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster,” observed, “No drugs, alcohol or tobacco touched his lips. He was addicted only to making money and spending it, and to the siren song of his own celebrity.”
By the time the Gangster Squad was through with Cohen, “Mickey becomes this self parody, promoting his own image, selling shares of his life story — almost like out of ‘The Producers,’ ” Lieberman said.
But in the movie, Cohen is fabulously wealthy, living in an enviable Brentwood manse. In life, however, he lived in a relatively modest home, which was eventually sold at auction for $40,000 after the IRS launched a tax-evasion case against him. His financial desperation became his downfall: Cohen even went so far as to form a relationship with the Rev. Billy Graham, stringing the Evangelist preacher along with promises that he’d convert, so long as someone could foot the bill for his troubles. And behind the scenes, of course, “He’s laughing at these people,” Lieberman said.
“By then he was this image-obsessed hoodlum who wants to play up being a hoodlum.”
But even as the prodigal parvenu, Cohen had his values. He loved animals — “he had dogs, not children,” Lieberman explained — and he once took a 12-year-old actress named Janet Schneider under his wing, inviting the aspiring Cincinnati native to Hollywood, where he introduced her to his friends in show business.
The girl’s father was footing the bill, of course, but Cohen “was very protective of her,” Lieberman said, “like a loving uncle.” He even sent her an autographed photo of the two of them from her visit, writing: “To my little girl Janet and my little friend, I just know that you can’t miss reaching the absolute heights — Love, Mickey.”
In the end, Cohen the hoodlum had unforgivably killed at least one person, served two prison terms for tax improprieties, was the target of more than 10 assassination attempts and been beaten in prison with a lead pipe — but, what the movie “Gangster Squad” leaves out is that he was also a human being.